This year’s winner of the People in Law’s Rising Star Award is a disruptive influence. But in a good way. Yasmina Kone talks to Adam McCulloch about levelling the playing field in recruitment
Yasmina Kone, graduate recruitment specialist at Clifford Chance, has been the spark behind several initiatives designed to level the playing field in the selection of trainees, promoting the diversity and inclusion agenda at all strata within the firm and driving change that may one day prove influential across the entire the legal sector.
Winning the award, she says, “felt like a massive personal achievement – it’s good to see that the work I’m doing is being valued. It’s made me want to look for new ways to disrupt the industry in a positive way. It’s also allowed me to build my network internally. In a company the size of Clifford Chance not everyone will know about the initiatives like LIFT… but it’s started conversations, and highlighted some of the work that we’re doing at a graduate level.”
It helps though that Clifford Chance “wants to be a leader in promoting diversity and inclusion and widening the people it recruits”.
Diversity and talent
The idea that gender and ethnic diversity benefits the firms’ decision-making and profitability, as well as making for a better, fairer society is established. But how to actually go about putting diversity into practice in recruitment isn’t always clear cut, especially for sectors in which processes are deeply rooted and slow to change and where talent pipelines have for a century or so revolved around the same old schools and universities.
Kone sees the issue as being one revolving around expectations. She recently told The Lawyer that “when it comes to recruiting diverse talent, I think the key is to make sure that you’re defining ‘talent’ in a way that isn’t limiting, and focusing on recognising potential rather than polish”.
In her previous role at diversity company Rare, Kone was part of the team that launched the contextual recruitment system. It helps identify high-potential candidates from diverse backgrounds who might otherwise be missed by weighing up the educational and social context that candidates live within. Clifford Chance was a founding partner of the system, which now has about 100 users, including names such as M&S, the Bank of England and Deloitte.
But face-to-face human projects form a key part of the process. Asked by People in Law which of the initiatives she has been involved in mean the most to her, Kone pauses before suggesting tech-focused training contract IGNITE, because it “disrupts the way things are usually run”. It has helped Clifford Chance differentiate its offering to students and has seen trainees on their various “seats” get involved in tech projects. “I’ve really been able to see the impact that IGNITE is having so far and it’s really exciting,” she says.
There’s also the general aim to upskill all trainees on technology. “From the moment they join the business, we’re empowering recruits to come up with new ideas, use our tech tools and continue to improve our client offering. It’s really representative of what we’re trying to do – create a pipeline of forward-thinking lawyers who have the training and tools to succeed.”
Learning and development
Clifford Chance believes IGNITE is unique in that it is the only training contract that combines qualifying as a solicitor while exploring how technology can solve problems in the legal sector. It utilises and cultivates trainees’ tech abilities to benefit clients. It’s part of a wider landscape of bringing people into the firm who aren’t necessarily from the law degree background. Computer science graduates, for example, can become excellent lawyers because of their understanding of AI and machine learning.
Then again, says Kone, there’s the LIFT initiative which offers future trainees the opportunity to gain experience with clients and internal areas at Clifford Chance. “An exceptional lawyer does not just understand the law,” she says. “You need to understand how businesses work, and gain a handle on the whole context. This is the first programme of its kind, and I’ve seen first-hand the value that it brings to our future trainees and the organisations involved.”
With responsibility for designing and developing the programme, Kone sources the internships for trainees. She talks with relevant business functions and partner organisations to establish what sort of skills trainees can develop and what sort of job specs are required.
“Any future trainees with a gap in their summer or studies can apply.”
She underlines that this is about creating opportunities and networks and points out that not everyone can gain work experience through family and friends’ connections.
Social mobility is an important issue for Kone, and strongly informs another initiative that she has played a key role in. This is the SPARK programme – a five-day opportunity for young people who are thinking about a career in law. It offers rare opportunities to shadow lawyers and gain a deep insight into the law at an early stage of students’ lives.
“Engaging with students this early allows us to provide skills development before they join us as trainees, which supports our aim to widen access to the profession and look for potential rather than polish. We can help them to develop key skills and level the playing field.”
Change from the inside
Kone feels her personal commitment to change is underscored by her employer. “I’m seeking to change things from the inside. Clifford Chance has a commitment to diversity… it’s not just lip service, we want to be a leader in diversity and set an example for other businesses.”
And by signing up to work alongside benchmarking diversity and anti-discrimination organisation Rare, Clifford Chance has made clear its determination to achieve change in the legal sector and beyond, says Kone, who from 2015 to 2017 worked for Rare in the UK and Australia.
The importance of role models in effecting change is key, she says, having senior leaders to look up to has played an influential role in helping Kone formulate her ideas and give her confidence. “As a young black woman I see senior leaders who are people of colour who are doing incredible work and pushing for change.”
She has also mentored a senior business partner as part of Clifford Chance’s reverse mentoring programme which, she says has led to some “amazing” discussions. “My voice is being heard and he has put a lot of what we discuss into action.
“I need to feel that my views on social change are reflected in the organisation I work for.”
That sense of identity and those views stem from her experiences growing up in north London, the daughter of parents with rich cultural backgrounds, both of whom understood the importance of academic success and hard work. Her father, from Côte d’Ivoire, is a retail manager while her mother, who has British and Indian heritage, works at a primary school.
After attending state school, Kone went off to the University of Bristol and gained a first in sociology and philosophy. She feels that her own story demonstrates the need for recruitment to take a wider set of factors into consideration when it comes to education and qualifications, in the manner of Rare’s contextual recruitment tool.
Catalysts for change
The surge in influence of the Black Lives Matter movement has had many positive benefits, she says, despite the anger and shock that reignited it after the recent killings of black people in the US.
Conversations have taken place that wouldn’t have happened without the toppling of statues, footballers taking the knee, and street protests. Negative comments by certain political figures have led to people educating themselves, learning about historical figures and beginning to understand the reality of unconscious bias and the benefits of diversity.
Kone says: “I always had the goal to look at the structures that create discrimination and help to dismantle them. Businesses know they can’t rest on their laurels and let political leaders lead on diversity issues – businesses need to use their role to act as catalysts for change.”
“BLM has really highlighted what needs to be done – and how we can all make this world a better place.
“My whole career has been driven by the idea that we can create a system that does work for everyone. Knowledge and education has been a consequence of the focus on Black Lives Matter – maybe it’s one of the silver linings that has come out of 2020. This is a unique point of history.”